Friday 17 April 2009

The Uplift War by David Brin

This story was first published over twenty years ago, but it's taken me this long to catch up with it. It is set something like half a millennium into the future, in Brin's 'Uplift' universe (the setting for a total of six novels so far). The Five Galaxies of civilisation are swarming with intelligent life, almost all of which was developed and genetically engineered ("uplifted") towards intelligence and a technological society by older star-faring "patron" races. This pattern was established three billion years before by the legendary and long-lost Progenitors, who laid down the law that all intelligent species had a moral duty to encourage the development of life in order to maximise the diversity of intelligence. Races earn their galactic status by the number of "client" races they are able to develop towards uplift.

The basic background to this universe is therefore quite utopian, but all is not perfect. The one exception to the pattern is humanity, who appear to have reached intelligence without external aid (although there are suspicions). Having avoided the 100,000 year period of client status (during which the uplifted species is supposed to serve their patrons) humans are regarded as uncivilised "wolflings". Even more galling to the old-established races is that by the time they were discovered by the Galactics, humanity has already uplifted two client races by themselves – dolphins and chimpanzees – and have therefore acquired status as patrons. Despite the noble sentiments which drive the Galactic civilisation the races are by no means all benign, and some become humanity's implacable enemies.

The Uplift War takes place on the planet of Garth, assigned to humanity by the Galactics in order to restore an ecosystem devastated by a failed uplifted race some fifty millennia before. The population of humans and their uplifted neo-chimpanzees is small and mainly involved in scientific work. Political disturbances among the Galactics lead to war, during which Garth is invaded by the avian Gubru. The plot is built around the resistance to this occupation, mostly by neo-chimps led by a few humans and helped by the ambassador of one of the few races allied to humanity, the Tymbrimi, and his daughter. The Tymbrimi are an interesting humanoid race with remarkable physical adaptability, unusual psychic sensitivity and a reputation as the Galactic jokers.

The theme of brave and clever resistance to an overpowering military occupation is an old one in SF, although more commonly set on Earth. The prime role of the neo-chimpanzees and the existence of alien allies also mark this one out as different. What really distinguishes The Uplift War, however, is the quality of the story-telling. This is a hugely enjoyable book from start to finish, hard to put down despite its daunting 630-page length. The neo-chimps are marvellously brought to life in a convincing mix of human and chimpanzee characteristics, and also with some pathos. Their uplift is far from over, and a selective breeding programme ensures that only the most advanced neo-chimps are able to pass their genes on to the next generation. In one scene, a "probationer" – a neo-chimp considered a failure and banned from breeding – bitterly points out that he would have been considered a great success only a few generations ago, and that in time the successful neo-chimps would themselves be looked down on by their more advanced successors. The Gubru and the likeable Tymbrimi are also convincingly brought to life and their alien thought-patterns well described.

A characteristic of Brin is his sense of humour and this is very evident throughout the book, with many laugh-out-loud moments. The mischievousness of the Tymbrimi provides plenty of jokes, but even more are focused on the hero of the story, the neo-chimp Fiben Bolger, whose wry and self-deprecating personality is a joy. Another characteristic is Brin's use of language; he introduces many colourful words which were new to me. Just about the only unconvincing moment for me was the unexpected climax of the book (which I can't explain without giving too much of the story away) which did come rather out of the blue. Overall, though, this is a wonderful story which can be unreservedly recommended.


Bill Garthright said...

I'm glad you liked this one, Tony. It's one of my favorites.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

This is a favorite of mine too. However, I was glad that I read the other two Uplift novels first as they provide a lot of backstory and get the reader acclimated to the uplift universe.

John G.

Anthony G Williams said...

I was aware that there were two earlier ones (and I usually like to read series in sequence) but this one was up for discussion in the Modern SF group.

Despite that, I had no trouble getting straight into the story. I gather that there's a gap of some centuries before the second and third books, so there's no direct connection except for the universe they're set in.

Fred said...

Are you aware of an anthology titled _Far Horizons_, edited by Robert Silverberg? It consists of some ten short works, each of which is set in that author's most well-known universe.

I first got interested because it has a short work by Benford, set in his "Galactic Center" universe, "A Hunger for the Infinite." I found a copy in the library, but after seeing the TOC, I decided I wanted a copy of my own.

One of the stories is "Temptation," by David Brin, which is set in the "Uplift Universe."

Anthony G Williams said...

Sounds interesting, Fred, I haven't come across that one.